Ottessa Moshfegh Is Disgusting (in a Good Way)

February 22, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 3 4 min read

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In Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story “The Locked Room,” the narrator describes her boyfriend, Takashi, as follows: “He seemed fearless, like he could do anything he wanted to do, even if it was disgusting.” Moshfegh’s collection Homesick for Another World demonstrates that the author, too, is fearless, with the ability to write anything she wants, even if it’s disgusting. But what does Takashi want to do, and what does Moshfegh want to write (even if it’s disgusting)? Takashi, a talented violinist who is “very intelligent and preoccupied with death and suffering” sometimes “bit into his lip and dribbled blood down his chin” and “vomited in public just to make a scene.” The narrator is attracted to Takashi precisely because of his willingness to shock, to transgress. There’s a parodic element at play that crops up throughout the collection. Though an atheist, Takashi claims to believe in hell. When asked whether truly believing in something makes it become reality, he simply responds, “I believe in death.” The detail that Takashi’s mouth “tasted like excrement when we kissed each other” is followed by the line “Takashi was my first real boyfriend.”

If it isn’t apparent from the above examples, the stories in Homesick for Another World are screamingly funny. Though cohesive in a way few collections are, the work is a polyphonic one whose author fully inhabits a range of narrators of differing ages, genders, and geographies. It is also superbly arranged, with an almost musical variation to its progression. What the pieces have in common brings us back to the aforementioned fearlessness on the part of the author, in essence a refusal to look away. For example, several characters in the collection (Takashi included) have skin issues. In fact, nearly every time skin is mentioned, it is deformed, damaged, or afflicted in some way, whether by pimples, rashes, wounds, disease, scars, or garden-variety wrinkles. In this regard, the collection is a work of realism — we’re all falling apart, or will eventually. One of few exceptions to the emphasis on decay and flaw takes place in the collection’s final story, titled “A Better Place.” The story’s narrator, a child, compares her scarred mother’s body to her own: “My thighs are like my arms. They are just skin and flesh with no marks. They are clean blank skin and flesh.”

If the author can write anything she wants, even if it’s disgusting, what is it we find disgusting? Our bodies, mostly, and ourselves. The collection’s opening story, “Bettering Myself,” announces an intention to depict bodily processes without flinching. “My classroom was on the first floor, next to the nuns’ lounge. I used their bathroom to puke in the mornings.” Toilets appear with regularity throughout the book, and the reader encounters the gamut of bodily fluids. It’s important to note that the title of the collection contains the word “sick.” Just as the body is most often portrayed as an ailing vessel, when the act of eating occurs it is tinged with nausea, or occurs merely to produce waste. To quote Paul, a character in “No Place for Good People” with a “moderate developmental disabilit[y]” who sometimes overeats until vomiting: “the poop is in the pudding.”

In many of these stories, disgust is otherwise coupled with desire. Immediately preceding sex, the narrator of “The Weirdos” looks up at her lover’s face “just to see how ugly it was and opened my mouth. It’s true I relished him in certain ways.” Here and elsewhere, it is the desire to look upon something that both pleases and displeases the eye. The story titled “Mr. Wu,” when it appeared in the Paris Review, was originally called “Disgust.” In it, the titular character has fallen in love with the cashier at a video-game arcade, a kind of gaming Internet café he frequents to be near the woman he pines for. He fantasizes about a future life together, in which “she gazes at him with almost nauseating devotion.” When Mr. Wu occasionally visits prostitutes, he hates himself “a little” afterward, and “was never startled when the thought came to him: I am disgusting.” He is disgusted by himself, by his desire, and, in turn, by the object of his desire, which inspires another wave of self-loathing. After discovering the woman’s number on a flyer for the arcade, he texts her and arranges a meeting. She reveals she is a deeply sad person. This spooks Mr. Wu, who begins to imagine her engaged in “disgusting” sex acts with a prostitute. Interestingly, he experiences revulsion at the thought of kissing on the mouth, as well as anything to do with the nether regions. The mouth, the anus: places where outside becomes inside, and vice versa.

“A Dark and Winding Road” blends attraction and revulsion in a similar manner. The narrator of this piece allows a dead-eyed woman to “do whatever she wanted to do” to him, which “wasn’t painful, nor was it terrifying, but it was disgusting — just as I’d always hoped it to be.” Pleasure is heightened by disgust, by the performance of the forbidden, that which is out of bounds. This story in particular constellates a number of breaches and infringements. After a squabble with his pregnant wife, the narrator drives to his parents’ mountain cabin. He plans to live it up one last time, bringing junk food, weed, and a special bottle of wine. The bottle was a gift from a college friend whose girlfriend the narrator slept with. To drink the wine would amount to at least a double transgression, though the lack of a corkscrew renders the bottle “impenetrable.” The narrator’s brother MJ has transgressed as well: he has been visiting the cabin, and he, or someone else, has left behind a dildo. The narrator recounts how he and MJ enjoyed breaking into houses as children, stealing and fiddling with other people’s possessions, and in one instance inserting poisonous berries into a pie. When a woman shows up at the cabin looking for MJ, the narrator engages in another double act of betrayal. Unlike the bottle of wine, he isn’t impenetrable.

Not only is this collection remarkable for its engagement with the body, ingestion, elimination, intercourse, aging, darkness, and decay — the horror and beauty thereof — it appears as if in relief against a contemporary literature largely rid of such fixations. Throughout the work, the author’s own transgression is the depiction of transgressive acts — pleasurable to take in on the level of the sentence, and often unsettling in terms of content. The characters in Homesick for Another World violate and are violated in turn; they are sick in every sense, and sick of this world. For the reader sick of the familiar, the staid, the banal, Ottessa Moshfegh presents an otherworldly alternative.

lives in Chicago, where he is at work on a novel. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Vice, The Believer, Subtropics, The New Republic, and elsewhere. He is a PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

3 comments:

  1. I find Moshfegh to be a vexing writer. On the one hand, she is a superb stylist and technician, with a real command of story structure and narrative. As this review mentions, she is also frequently very funny. On the other hand, she trades in a kind of cheap nihilism that I don’t find fundamentally very interesting. There are toilets, drugs, bad sex, bodily disgust.

    Along these lines, her character understanding is about a millimeter deep; the authorial position, in fact, usually seems to be one of contempt for her characters. For instance, the aging Manhattanites in “Beach Boys,” who speak with perfect, privileged idiocy about poor people. Later in the story, following a catastrophe, the doctor husband suddenly realizes that he has always followed the rules, never done what he wants–quelle surprise! It is an unconvincing, unfair portrayal of an intelligent person who has never done an ounce of introspection, and it does not ring true. Or rather, it does ring true in that it reveals Moshfegh’s general disdain and lack of interest in people’s complex and varied interior lives.

  2. @Dave Coulier

    Dave, I agree with your observations in terms of Moshfegh’s style and technique, but the “cheap nihilism” I actually find very interesting and appealing, especially in an age of writing where just about every novel/story seems mentions a struggling writer named Jonathan from Brooklyn.

    I imagine this criticism was the same Cheever and Carver received when they started writing about the ugly — or the other side of life. That’s something literature today desperate needs and perhaps we should welcome it, especially it’s written intelligently.

  3. Chef,

    I have no objection to the ugliness, other side-ness of Moshfegh work. I like that aspect of it, in fact, although I do think she overdoes it, at times.

    What bothers me, I think, is the palpable contempt she has for her characters. Too often, they are cruel, dumb, greedy, banal, and un-self aware in a way that feels borne not of a desire to explore the dark side of human nature, but of authorial inattention and disdain. Carver, to use one of your examples, wrote about flawed working-class people, but he did so with great sympathy and interest. Moshfegh, to me, feels like a very intelligent, affluent kid who is slumming with people she knows she’s superior to. I do enjoy her writing, but I wish she was less lazily amoral.

    As a side note to you comment, can I ask why you used Cheever and Carver as examples? They have virtually nothing in common, in terms of style of subject matter, yet I see them mentioned in tandem constantly. I have a working theory that it’s because 1) they briefly taught together at Iowa and 2) their names are similar.

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